THE PRESENCE PROJECT
To paint a portrait is to develop an intimate relationship with the subject. I pour over every feature, every shift in skin tone with my number two filbert brush. I meditate upon conversations that I have had with the subject. In this series, the subjects are residents of an Alzheimer’s unit.
Each of these individuals recounted to me stories that they felt important to share. Narratives about thirty years in the military or blue-collar work in the coalmines; snippets of childhood memories of swimming in Lake Superior; stories from years of experience as parents, daughters, sons, siblings, spouses, friends. Advice gleaned from a life well lived. Some were reluctant to share; others were natural storytellers. They are humorous, blunt, unapologetic. These narratives informed the portraits. I challenged myself to capture the presence of each individual.
I paint these portraits almost entirely alla prima, so that my brushstrokes can carry the immediacy of an interaction with the subject. The strokes offer a tactile presence, in that the viewer can follow the paint and thereby follow my presence as painter in the work. My careful and gentle brushstrokes reflect the care I take in interacting with the individuals in their delicate state of mind. I paint with empathy - with the same compassion I feel necessary to show these individuals in our conversations.
I find that by featuring a life-size three-quarter view of the body, I am able to portray the posture of these individuals. The posture can indicate attentiveness and openness, or a withdrawn mind. The postures are weighted, and we can feel their presence in this weight. The three-quarter view also allows me to feature the hands of the figures. Hands have a language of their own, just as posture does. The hands add an accessible and emotive element to the portraits that pushes the presence of these paintings even further. Finally, I use cool, dim lighting combined with carefully staged chiaroscuro to create a soft but dramatic impression of isolation in the paintings, to reflect the isolation I can only imagine these people feel.
I aim to render the figures with the accuracy and dignity they so deserve. The paintings are as honest, candid, and present as the subjects they represent. I have developed intimate relationships with individuals who will not remember me, but I can only hope that they feel celebrated through these portraits.